Pinker: Better Angels: Chapter 1: A Foreign Country

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one.” This 30-page chapter is “tour” of the past, from 8000 BCE to the 1970s, an impressionist portrait of how violence was so common in the past, compared to today, a trend Pinker will justify with statistics in the latter part of the book.

  • Human Prehistory. Accounts of archaeological finds of skeletons – Otzi the Iceman; the Kennewick Man – who obviously died by violence.
  • Homeric Greece. Accounts of gory violence in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
  • The Hebrew Bible. I quoted a couple passages from this section in this post: (scroll to bottom). He ends several pages with this crucial point:
    • If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

  • The Roman Empire and Early Christendom. Pinker notes Jesus’ attitude toward violence, in Matthew 10:34-37. With comments about the commonality of pagan myths that told of a savior who was “born of a virgin at the winter solstice, surrounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and symbolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality.”
  • And about the Colosseum and its “spectacles of mass cruelty”; its practice of crucifixion, with a detailed description; and how Christians thought the crucifixion of Jesus was a *good* thing. (See my earlier quote from this passage in this post:; “In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor.”)
  • And how later Christians reveled in excruciating details of the deaths of martyrs.
    • Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life…

  • And again the crucial point, p17.3:
    • Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

This is up to page 17.

This issue of religious ‘hypocrisy’ is technically, unavoidably, true, but doesn’t address (this is not Pinker’s purview) the reality of how religion works in modern society, which is about community, tribalism if you like, the coming together of people like yourselves whom you can trust. The ancient texts are vestiges which modern people, fortunately, do not read too closely. If every common person who attends church and who expresses faith and who participates in activities with their brethren were confronted with the sadistic details of their religious texts, and forced to endorse them or not—what would happen? That will never happen.

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